Chan's Trailhead: The Triple Refuge and the Precepts
- By Chuan Zhi
- Jan 25
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How do we begin with Zen? We don't start climbing Mt. Everest from the third base station. We start at the very bottom, climb a bit, set up camp, wait for a few days to let ourselves adjust to the altitude, then move on up again, slowly, step by step. This is the same way we proceed in Chan. We start at the bottom, and work our way up, slowly, step by step. To do otherwise will beckon sure failure. A mountain climber, if dropped by helicopter halfway up Everest, would suffer severe hypoxia and could become unconscious or even die from the sudden reduction of oxygen. There are dangers of equal magnitude on the Chan path, but these dangers are predominantly psychological. Our minds and psyches must be prepared for each advance we make as we ascend if we're going to get to the summit safely. If we don't prepare for our journey before we begin we'll likely never arrive at the destination. And this is where the wisdom of our Chan ancestors offers invaluable guidance.
Photographs by Dimitris Maras
The basics in our practice should be first, to be honest and upright; second, to be wary of wrongdoing; and third, to be humble within one's heart, to be aloof and content with little. If we are content with little in regards to speech and in all other things, we will see ourselves, we won't be distracted. The mind will have a foundation of virtue, concentration, and wisdom.
"Virtue, concentration, and wisdom together make up the Path. But this Path is not yet the true teaching, not merely the Path that will take you there. For example, say you traveled the road from Bangkok to Wat Pah Pong; the road was necessary for your journey, but you were seeking Wat Pah Pong, the monastery, not the road. In the same way we can say that virtue, concentration, and wisdom are outside the truth of the Buddha but are the road that leads to this truth. When you have developed these three factors, the result is the most wonderful peace."
Some of us reach a point in our life where we know we can no longer continue as we have - our pains and sufferings are too great. We know something must change -- and we know it is ourselves. We begin seeking: we know not what, or where, but we look in all directions. There must be an end to this terrible suffering, we know, and we will stop nowhere until we find it. If we're lucky, our quest may lead us to Chan's trailhead and, if we're courageous enough, we'll set off on a most remarkable journey. We won't know where we're going, but we'll proceed with the faith that we'll be lead out of the swamp that we're so desperate to leave behind us. As we go, we'll discover that others have treaded this same path before us, leaving footprints that we might follow. Their wisdom will beckon us onward and upward. We'll realize how lucky we are that we don't have to walk alone because we'll see how easy it would be to lose sight of the trail. We'll embrace the wisdom of those who have gone before us realizing that it will help us make rapid progress up the mountain - a shorter journey to he summit.
People have suffering in one place, so they go somewhere else. When suffering arises there, they run off again. They think they're running away from suffering, but they're not. Suffering goes with them. They carry suffering around without knowing it. If we don't know suffering then we can't know the cause of suffering. If we don't know the cause of suffering then we can't know the cessation of suffering. There's no way we can escape it."
How do we begin? We don't start climbing Mt. Everest from the third base station. We start at the very bottom, climb a bit, set up camp, wait for a few days to let ourselves adjust to the altitude, then move on up again, slowly, step by step. This is the same way we proceed in Chan. We start at the bottom, and work our way up, slowly, step by step. To do otherwise will beckon sure failure. A mountain climber, if dropped by helicopter halfway up Everest, would suffer severe hypoxia and could become unconscious or even die from the sudden reduction of oxygen. There are dangers of equal magnitude on the Chan path, but these dangers are predominantly psychological. Our minds and psyches must be prepared for each advance we make as we ascend if we're going to get to the summit safely. If we don't prepare for our journey before we begin we'll likely never arrive at the destination. And this is where the wisdom of our Chan ancestors offers invaluable guidance.
Chan begins with an understanding of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths. These contain the Eightfold Path, which, in turn, contains the Precepts. We have already discussed the Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, so if our views and understanding are aligned with these fundamental teachings, we may be inspired to take the Triple Refuge and receive Precepts. If our motives are for other reasons: if we're lonely and want a social group with commensurate interests to ours; if we want a situation where we can be become "important" and gain prestige or power over others; or if we want an organization to affiliate with in order to help us make money, then we are not yet ready for a spiritual path that requires, at its core, solitude, humility, detachment, and self-reflection. Only we can know our true motives for wanting to become Buddhists. If our motives are externally rather than internally derived, membership in a congregation of any kind will not help us in a quest for spiritual transformation.
Becoming a Chan Buddhist does not require of us any specific number of years of study, memorization of canonical texts, or recitation of religious creeds, but it is helpful to have knowledge of some of Chan's important historical texts (see Related Reading at the bottom of this page).
"Is it necessary to take precepts?" we may ask ourselves. When we first learn to drive a car we do so with enthusiasm because of a strong desire to attain the freedom and independence that driving symbolizes. This is, in a way, like taking the Triple Refuge. We have faith that if we follow the rules and become good "drivers" we will have a new sort of freedom that we didn't have previously. Driving rules are like the precepts - to attain our goal we must work within the rules. The rules protect us -- keep us from crashing -- and keep us going in the right direction. At first they may be difficult to follow, but with practice and perseverance they become automatic and help us gain the rewards we're seeking.
There's an ancient Chan proverb: "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. When the teacher is ready, the student will appear." Accepting the precepts and triple refuge from a priest can be a way of more firmly grounding us to Chan's path. When precepts are given and received, the priest becomes a committed resource for the disciple. How the voluntary relationship between priest and disciple evolves after precepts are given will be determined by the needs and spiritual development of both the disciple and the priest.
The Triple Refuge
Buddham saranam gacchami, I take refuge in the Buddha
Dhammam saranam gacchami, I take refuge in the Dharma
Sangham saranam gacchami, I take refuge in the Sangha
Taking refuge is a way to help shift our minds away from their attachments. It is a way of committing ourselves to the path, of encouraging ourselves to put our own ideas and opinions aside to be guided by something greater.
The nature of the human psyche is to attach itself somewhere and this may seem, initially, at odds with the Buddha's Four Noble Truths that proclaim detachment as the key to success. But it is exactly because of the psyche's nature to attach that we must, first and foremost, have a safe place for it to attach; that is, we must have a refuge for it. In taking refuge in the Buddha we embrace our own Buddha Nature, we embrace the teachings of the Buddha and the Buddha's path of enlightenment; in taking refuge in the Dharma, we acknowledge the Universal Nature of all things, the perfection of all beings, and recognize the illusionary nature of mental images and attachments; in taking refuge in the Sangha, we join with all the others who, like us, seek enlightenment on the Chan path.
Taking refuge is like laying the foundation for a house that we are building - a house where we intend to live out the rest of our lives. If the foundation is weak, we may end up with a structure that falls down with the first rain or high wind. If our faith in the Chan path is weak, we may find that our ability to follow the path vanishes the first time we encounter difficulties with our practice or come upon hard times. Our motivation must be high, and our eagerness to succeed must be great enough to endure inevitable obstacles and failures.
If we approach the triple refuge with an attitude of trying it out to see if we like it, the doubt with which we approach it will ultimately sabotage our effort. Such an approach is like laying the foundation for a house before we know where we want to live.
Ultimately, whether taken in a public or private setting, taking refuge is a commitment we make to ourselves. If we are not committed in our own hearts and minds, the words we speak in taking refuge will be meaningless.
The collection of five precepts is to us what a trail map is to a hiker: if we follow it, we're likely to arrive at our destination. Shakyamuni Buddha summarized, the general objective of Buddhist morality: "To do no evil, to cultivate good, and to purify one's mind: this is the teaching of the Buddhas." We want to understand the precepts in relation to this intent. The precepts aren't an end in and of themselves: we will not succeed in Chan if we are merely dogmatic followers of a religious creed.
The precepts are contained in the fourth step of the Eightfold Path as a set of five vows:
Precept 1) We vow to be non-violent
This means we avoid initiating violent acts against ourselves or others; that is, we may not be an initiating cause of harm. We include physical acts of violence as well as abusive verbal acts, hostility or anger toward another person, and even thoughts of violence or anger toward one's self or another person.
This may seem an impossible precept to keep. There are so many things that can make us angry that to completely eliminate anger from our lives may seem insurmountably difficult. And there are countless ways to harm another, without even intending to. For example, we may choose to help someone only to discover that we have harmed them instead. There are times that a person must find his or her own way, independently. Allowing them to make their own mistakes can be a way of indirectly helping them. Interference from a "kind and helping hand" can sometimes generate more problems than it solves.
The precept of non-violence is taken to extreme by some across religious traditions: for fear of killing microbes in the air by breathing them, they wear facemasks; for fear of saying something to someone that harms them, they will not speak. There are others who will go to the opposite extreme, killing another person without hesitation simply because they have convinced themselves that their cause is Right, Good, and Just: that their actions are "approved by God" and therefore representative of Supreme Righteousness. Clearly, neither extreme is representative of the intent of this precept.
But can a Chan Buddhist fight in a war? If we recognize that we exist as a species because of our ability throughout history to defend ourselves, the answer to this question may no longer seem black and white. We find we can neither condemn fighting nor condone it in any universally objective way. Wars and battles are the reason for our continued existence as well as the reason for much of the suffering we have endured over the millennia. There are some wars that must be fought: we need only consider World War II and the global battle against Hitler and his armies. To have taken a pacifist attitude toward the Nazis would have been tantamount to accepting, and condoning, the mass-slaughter of over a million Jews and others he found unfit to live in his future "Aryan Nation".
But obviously not all wars are worthy of violent participation; the line of demarcation can only be drawn from our own moral conscience. When a question arises about the right thing to do, we remember that Chan, as the "Middle Way", encourages us to avoid extremes and choose a course of action based on its merit after having considered all "sides" of the situation. But this is not foolproof either. It is helpful to recognize that the nature of the psyche yet to complete the process of individuation, will project anger, violence, and hate, upon others when it feels threatened or confronted with a situation that generates fear. The result is dehumanizing treatment, torture, or even death of others. When acted upon collectively, this projection can result in the devastation of war. When our actions are reactions to this "dark force" - the enemy shadow -- within us, we need to recognize it and stop ourselves from reactive action. The student of Chan seeks complete integration of all the many components of the psyche (see Integrating the Archetypes on this website and Process of Individuation). Only a fully enlightened person can be freed from uncontrolled projections of the Enemy Shadow. We can study Chan's famous Ox herding Series Or Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching or The Secret of the Golden Flower (translation by Richard Wilhelm) to help understand Individuation in the Chinese context, or, in the Western context, we can study Carl Jung's and D. T. Suzuki's works (e.g., Carl Jung's "Alchemical Studies" and "Symbols of Transformation" and D.T. Suzuki's "Essays in Zen Buddhism.
Until the unconscious forces buried deep in our psyche become conscious, we are at their mercy. When we get angry we may lash out with venom. Anger may consume us. But anger is always eliminated with understanding; that is, conscious integration of its emotional origins. A person of Chan may still get angry, but will quickly identify the source of the anger, making the cause conscious, and be able to avoid acting on the emotion it elicits. Thus the emotions erupt and vanish with equal ease. We must be especially careful not to bury anger or resentment or any form of hostility inside us. This form of repression is especially harmful.
Of equal importance in this first precept is that we do no harm to ourselves. This means we avoid excessive behaviour that might harm us, and pursue beneficial, moderate, behavior such as eating a healthy diet, meditating, and exercising (tai chi, yoga, swimming, hiking, running are all excellent forms of exercise).
We must also be gentle on ourselves and remember that we are human beings, not archetypal projections, and that, as human beings, perfection in thought and action is a goal to aspire to rather than something to expect from ourselves: guilt is not helpful, but recognition of our own fallibility brings humility which is an essential quality for spiritual growth.
Precept 2) We vow to be truthful
The importance of truthfulness is universal to all World Religions. "Be truthful, for truthfulness leads to righteousness and righteousness leads to Paradise" said Muhammad. Psalm 15 from the Old Testament (Ezra, Haggai, James) says: "LORD, who shall abide in thy tabernacle? Who shall dwell in thy holy hill? He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart. He that backbiteth not with his tongue, nor doeth evil to his neighbor, nor taketh up a reproach against his neighbour." The Buddha stated: "One should conquer anger through kindness, wickedness through goodness, selfishness through charity, and falsehood through truthfulness." (Dhammapada, XVII, 3)
Being untruthful caries with it a huge price. Once we tell a lie or deceive someone we must follow a path of ever-deepening deception to maintain the lie. Our stories get more and more elaborate until it becomes clear to everyone that we're fabricating the entire scenario -- and then we're no longer trusted: our credibility is destroyed. Even worse, we loose our own self-respect, our sense that we are worthy human beings. Not only do we bring others down when we lie, cheat, steal, coerce, or deceive; we, ourselves, are sullied and suffer the result.
Precept 3) We vow not to steal
A man once told me that during a visit to a local gym he noticed someone had failed to lock the locker where he had put his clothes. He saw that there was a wallet in the pants pocket and decided that it was his duty to take the money out of it. "It taught him a lesson, I hope." He told me. "Maybe next time he won't be foolish enough to leave his locker unlocked." The degree to which we will rationalize an action when we feel we have something to gain from it is unlimited if we are negligent of this important precept. Nothing justifies the taking of another person's property.
In the same vein, if we borrow something from someone, it is our obligation to return it, and if we damage that thing, it is our obligation to repair it, or compensate the owner in some appropriate way for the damage we caused.
Likewise, this precept goes beyond simple theft in that it disallows our using guile and deceit to cause others to unwillingly give that which they do not have, or to gain some profit or advantage we are not legitimately due.
Precept 4) We vow to be sexually moral
Sex is a natural urge for all forms of life and we wouldn't exist without it so there is no basis to consider it to be inherently immoral. But the sexual urge, when combined with selfish desire, can lead us astray. We must be especially vigilant to avoid the pitfalls that come with careless, reckless, sexual conduct. "Sexual morality" means we act responsibly -- that we do not harm another person, or ourselves, because of a desire for sex. This precept emphasizes that we be considerate, compassionate, and thoughtful in our sexual encounters. We must never involve children in sexual acts. And seducing another person through deceit, drugs (such as alcohol), or other means also violates this precept. Any activity that exploits another person in any way - uses them for selfish motives - robs them of their humanity. How can this be helpful to anyone?
The important point to remember is that we need to treat people respectfully, compassionately, and as human beings, in all situations. We need to be aware of the consequences of our actions: Do they cause harm to anyone? We consider psychological harm as well as physical and emotional harm. If the answer is "yes", our conscience should tell us to stop.
This is a tougher precept to keep than it may seem at a glance. Even the Buddha is said to have acknowledged this in a humorous way when he said: "If I had had another obstacle as difficult to overcome as my sexuality, I never would have made it."
Precept 5) We vow to abstain from abuse of alcohol or other intoxicants
A man recently confided in me. He told me that he once drank and smoked heavily. It was during a time of his life, he said, that things were very difficult. "My wife was an angry, tyrannical, person and my children were scared of her. She had a mental disorder that she wouldn't get treated and she turned our home into hell. It was a very difficult time for me that didn't end until I divorced her. But I stayed with her until the kids had moved out of the house and went to College. After she and I were no longer together I spontaneously stopped smoking and drinking. I didn't even have to try ... and the odd thing was, it wasn't difficult at all -- I just didn't need alcohol or cigarettes anymore, so I didn't use them. It was the first time I had felt happy in many years. I guess I felt like I didn't need to drown my sorrows in booze anymore because there were no more sorrows to drown."
Happiness requires that we put our mind on the task of being happy. Happiness, itself, eliminates the need -- the cause -- to use intoxicating drugs. It takes extreme effort to be happy sometimes, especially if we live with an unhappy spouse, work with a difficult boss or colleague, or are physically or mentally ill in some way. But the greater our effort, the greater our success.
Nirvana is in the Heart as well as the Mind. It requires unrelenting effort to re-group and focus on the beauties and joys that life has to offer instead of the sorrows that are always so blatantly obvious. We cannot move forward on a spiritual path if we succumb to our desires to escape from life's hardships through drugs. We must meet those hardships head-on, and this can only be done through the proper focusing of attention with a clear, sober, eye.
Chan has no punishment/reward system. Following the precepts is voluntary just as not following the precepts is voluntary. We move ahead on the path with small steps. Trying to do it all at once, perfectly, will result in failure and we'll quickly give up. If we choose to break a precept, it needs to be with the conscious choice that we are breaking it and be prepared to accept any possible consequences.
The Samsaric realm of cause and consequence - karma - will determine the direction and results of our actions. If we drink alcohol we may awake the next morning with a headache; if we are recovering alcoholics, we may find ourselves back at the bottle full-time; if we have an extra-marital affair, we may end up in court. If we choose to kill another person, or have an abortion, we will have to live with the inevitable damage to our psyche (it may be conscious or unconscious or both) - and sometimes this damage can be nearly insurmountable to overcome. This is our life and it's our choice how we live it. The precepts are not random and arbitrary, but serve a purpose - to help lift us up out of life's challenges in samsara. A prominent Chan teacher said "It is better to have taken the precepts and to have broken them sometimes, than to not have ever taken them at all."
People often ask me how far they must take the precepts. Does abstinence from alcohol, for example, mean that they should never, "share a drink" with a friend? Does it mean they should not use wine in cooking, or ethanol in medicinal preparations? I remind them that Chan is the mystical path of Buddhism and is referred to as the "middle way" for a good reason. As long as we act responsibly and caringly for others and ourselves, we are free to act freely. Unless we are free to act freely, how can we become free? The precepts are not dogmas but dharmas - wisdom in the form of guidelines to help us pursue a spiritual life - a life leading to wisdom, emancipation, and liberation. The precepts are also guidelines that help us in times of indecision. They are for us to use, and not for us to judge others by, or ourselves by. And if we don't find any value in taking the precepts, then we might ask ourselves why we are seeking to follow the Buddhist path, a path whose trailhead begins with moral discipline.
Chan Buddhism is not a "philosophy of life" as it is popularly portrayed, but a mystical path of salvation offering freedom from Samsara's eternal suffering. It requires a great deal of commitment, self-discipline, and motivation, as well as humility. Chan is not about how we think about life, but about how we live life. It is about inquiry into our nature as human beings and about making every moment of our lives count. Gratefully, Chan leads to an ever-increasing awareness of Self and a simultaneous elevating of joy in our life. Joan Sutherland, Roshi, of The Open Source Project, says:
"The meaning of our vows arises from an exploration of our own sense of integrity, and of our shadow-and we understand that this is a lifetime practice. It's a process that's paradoxical, frustrating, magical, and sometimes messy. Just like life. We accept that we'll make mistakes along the way, but that doesn't stop us from trying. This is the lotus in the fire, and it's a process full of our sweat, our tears, our doubts, our generosities, and sometimes our remorse.
"Luckily we have help, because we also take refuge in our practice and our companions. For some people, this happens the first time they walk into a meditation hall, when they feel they've come home. For others, the sense of homecoming grows slowly over time, with deepening practice, as they become more and more intimate with their own true nature, and the true nature of the world. For a Zen person, this is the ultimate homecoming, the one no circumstance can ever take away."
Author's note: If you are considering a life of Chan, listen to the teachings of our ancestors and consider taking a leap into the unknown. You'll be lead to unimaginable rewards and a life rich with beauties and joys, sadness and sorrows. It is a life of the Real World, of inner knowledge of ourselves and of what it's like to be fully human, and fully alive. No worldly activity will lead to this place of glorious peace. By turning inward with a fearless leap of faith, you'll find it's all there, waiting for you to arrive.